Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter V

What the World Owes to Tiberias


One of the ironies of Jewish History is that while the Jews in the first century despised Galilee (John 7:52) it was Galilee, through Tiberias, that in the next century made the continued existence of Rabbinical Judaism a possibility, and in later times gave valuable gifts to the Jewish and Christian world. Judaism seemed to have perished in the massacre associated with the Bar Cochba revolt (132 A.D.), but it rose again to greater power and brilliancy than ever during the Jamnia Period (70-132 A.D.), through the re-establishment of the Patriarchate at Tiberias in the family of Gamaliel, which there held sway over the Western Jewish World till 425 A.D.

The loss of many of the Jewish teachers during the war, and the risks of loss connected especially with the Oral Law, or unwritten Traditions of the Elders, led men to consider the putting into permanent accessible form the laws and teachings that had hitherto been transmitted by word of mouth, and this work, when completed, gave the world the Mishnah in 188 A.D.

Discussion then began in the schools on this written text. Meetings of the Sanhedrin took place in the great caves of Tiberias, right under the ruins of the palace of the Herods (Ber. Rab. 31), and these being put on record, gave us the Jerusalem Talmud in 360 A.D.

This twofold work, as well as the Babylonian discussions on the same Mishnah text, provide many confirmations of New Testament story, and give light on the manners, customs, and life of the first century. We have been often asked by Jewish friends: "Why do you study the Talmuds?" Our answer has invariably been: "Because they explain and remove every objection that even Isaac Troki's 'Chizzuk Emunah' (1583) brings against the New Testament." Verily, a copy especially of the Mishnah, with New Testament references, would be a valuable addition to any minister's library.

Just two years before the Palestinian Talmud was completed, another work of the greatest importance to Judaism was carried through. In earlier centuries the Jewish Calendar had been arranged monthly by observation of the new moon. This was quite practical during the Jamnia Period, when those in authority were able to make observations in the Plain of Sharon, but the work was impossible to those living in the deep valley of the Jordan, nearly 700 feet below sea level. Accordingly, in 358 A.D., the Jewish Calendar was arranged astronomically, and so well were the observations and the calculations made that no correction will be required till the end of time. Scaliger was wont to say that the Christians would have done better had they adopted the Jewish, instead of the heathen Roman Calendar.

These works, and probably a good deal of editing of earlier literature, were purely Jewish, but Christians too were seeking light from Tiberias. Origen of Alexandria (ob. 253) sought for and got guidance from Tiberias rabbis, and one of his columns gives us the transliteration of the Hebrew text in Greek characters, a valuable testimony to the pronunciation of Hebrew in the second and third centuries. Jerome, too, before he ventured on giving the world the Vulgate Latin version, settled in Tiberias and learned Hebrew. This was shortly before 400 A.D.

Between the days of Origen and Jerome there is an interesting bit of history to record. The Patriarch, Hillel II. was long suspected of being secretly a Christian. He was attended on his death bed by a Jewish doctor named Joseph, who found, under the pillow of the dead rabbi, the Gospels of Matthew and John, as also the Book of Acts. He read these, and himself became a Christian, after which he was persecuted for years, until Constantine protected him, and gave him permission to build a number of churches in Galilee. The foundations and mosaic pavement of that at Capernaum can still be traced between the synagogue and the sea. That church served the needs of the Christians in that district for well over 300 years. Another of his churches was erected at Cana of Galilee (Kefr Kenna), on the supposed site of the marriage feast (John 2), and there a votive tablet in Aramaic recently unearthed is now exhibited.

The Patriarchate in Tiberias came to an end in 425 A.D. The Roman Emperor, pressed on all hands by lack of funds, prevented money being sent to Tiberias for the support of the Patriarchate, and hence its downfall. It is intereting to know that it was this same Emperor, Honorius, who, unable to sustain his legions in Britain, ordered their withdrawal in 410 A.D., thus leaving an open door for the Saxon invaders. Thus early did Jewish finance control the fate of empires.

Whenever the Jews quarrelled among themselves, there was the making of history, and the next two events illustrate this. About the middle of the sixth century the non-Palestinian Jews wished to read the Bible in Greek. Rabbinical Judaism in Palestine objected, and the case went on appeal to Justinian. His decision was that the Bible might be read in any of the current Greek translations. At the same time he took the opportunity of forbidding "tradition," that is the Mishnah, or codified Oral Law, with the comments and discussions thereon, in short the two Talmuds. This led the Jews to give greater attention for the time being to the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament. The best MSS were sought out, and the text as we now have it, with "Keri" and "Kethibh" finally settled. This was done in Tiberias about 553 A.D.

About 750 A.D. a bitter dispute took place between the rabbinical Jews, who favoured tradition, and the Karaites, who stood by the written text. Now when men dispute over written documents they must fully understand the grammar of the language in question. Accordingly grammars and dictionaries were now first compiled. But such work entails exactness of pronunciation. The Hebrew Bible had hitherto been unpointed. This led between 750 and 800 to the Tiberias punctuation being added to the Consonantal Text, and this we still use. One has only to think of the Samaritans with their unpointed Bible, and hear the manifest absurdities of pronunciation; or to consider that no man can correctly pronounce a single word of the ancient Hieroglyphic Egyptian today, because only unvowelled texts have been transmitted, to bless the memory of these old Tiberias punctuators. The vowelling of the Hebrew Bible is one of the most magnificent accomplishments the world has ever seen. And it was done in Tiberias, when Europe had sunk to the lowest level of mediaeval semi-barbarism.

As it is, we can, by comparative studies, fully prove that we possess not only the same Old Testament Canon; but the same text, the same square Hebrew alphabet, and the same pronunciation of the Hebrew tongue as was current in the days of Christ and the apostles.

In later centuries there was further rivalry that also helped. This was mainly between Tiberias, which stood by a reasonable exegesis, and Safad, which advocated a mystical and Kabbalistic interpretation. In this matter too, Tiberias on the whole has had the victory.

So far as Rabbinism is concerned, Tiberias has fallen on evil days. Fifty years ago there were hundreds of rabbinical students in its schools. Now they are reduced to tens. But the old crooked mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic of the Talmuds is gradually giving place to a purer Hebrew speech, and to some extent leaving the simple Bible in the hands of the people, pruned of quibbling rabbinics. Still even in this there is a loss, for the older Aramaic documents, Targums and Talmuds, as well as the Jewish Commentaries, contain so much that is Messianic, that one could easily prove that the older synagogue and the church fathers were practically at one in Bible interpretation.

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